I’m teaching Theoretical Mechanics this term and next week we have the first set of oral exams. Each student will take 9 oral exams, but each will only be five minutes long. With only 13 students in the course, each set only takes just over an hour. We’ll devote 9 days of class to this exercise, and I think they’ll be worth every minute.
I was thinking about the oral exams today as I was grading some of the screencast submissions from my students on the “I can derive the Euler/Lagrange equation” standard. A few of them had pretty good derivations, but there were tiny issues that I was disappointed to see that they didn’t nail. My first inclination was to give a “3 improvable” meaning that they could just try to figure out the tiny thing I care about to turn that into a 4 (the highest score on my Frank Noschese rubric). But then I remembered the oral exams and realized that I could give them 4s now but lay into whoever gets that standard for the oral exams next week. Every standard will be done roughly four times next week, so the whole class will be able to hear my tiny issues discussed.
I want to be clear here. I’m not saying that I’m giving them a good score now only to blast them next week. Instead I’m trying to really reflect on my rubric. If I’d brag about it, or it seems they could teach it well, that means they get a four. That’s not the same as saying they can do every single tiny detail that I have learned to watch for after teaching this course six times.
I also thought about the role oral exams play in some of the resource screencasts I make for the students. Today we were talking about applying the Euler/Lagrange approach to multi-dimensional problems and I offered up that I could fill in the details of the derivation if they weren’t super comfortable with just saying “ah, ok, I could believe that you’d get the same equation for every variable.” At the end of the day our “I can” statement was “I can do an interesting multi-dimensional Lagrangian problem” so when I sat down to do the screencast, I realized that it really was only needed if the standard had ended up being “I can derive . . .” But that’s when it hit me that the students who
watch study that screencast are going to be much better off if they get that standard in the oral exam. They’ll have a “interesting” problem worked out, but I might just ask why they can use that differential equation in the first place. Is it fair? You bet! They need to know this stuff. They need to know where it comes from and why it matters, not just how to turn the crank.
How do oral exams help your teaching? Here’s some starters for you:
- I like this approach. I think for my oral exams next time I’ll . . .
- I’m in this class and I think this is great. I think it especially makes sense for the standard on . . .
- I’m in this class and I think this is dumb. It’s a double standard! If you want us to know the tiny details, you should lay them all out for us so that we can just read them back for you.
- What percentage of your students
studywatch your screencasts?
- Five minutes! That’s awesome and here’s why . . .
- Five minutes! That’s ridiculous and here’s why . . .